A stay in Wahiba Sands: exploring Oman’s desert
To scare djinns and spirits away, the Bedouin would rattle pomegranate seeds in the lid of their coffee pot as it brewed.
Step into Oman’s desert and you can understand why. Here, the dunes stretch off in all directions, deep burned orange against a fiercely blue sky shading to molten gold under the sun, the grains blown by the wind into smooth soft peaks like whipped egg whites.
Climb to the top, the sand slithering out beneath each determined footstep and you’re greeted by the sight of another dune, and another and another, as far as the eye can see.
And all around you the silence envelops everything; no birds seem to call here, a lone camel plodding past is muffled by the treacle-thick quiet.
While the true Empty Quarter, or Rub al Khali as the world’s biggest sand desert is known, begins a little way west of here, this remains one of the emptiest landscapes I’ve seen. Almost the only sound is my own breathing.
You can understand why the people of the desert would fill this quiet with tales of myth and legend, of magic and genies, and the clatter of seeds to break the still, an attempt to keep the otherworldly at bay with its very ordinariness.
I didn’t have a pomegranate. But I did have a five-year-old. And even the power of the Empty Quarter wouldn’t entirely silence a small chatterbox, especially one with a blank sandy canvas to draw on and endless slopes to slide giggling down – sometimes intentionally.
Visualising Oman, it’s the desert which first comes to mind, and our night at the 1000 Nights Camp in Wahiba Sands, also known as Sharqiya Sands, was one part which I was most looking forward to.
After dates and qahwa – the traditional cardamom-flavoured coffee – at a Bedouin tent, we had headed into the dunes. A bleached camel skull adorns the door; these days, the tent is more of a tourist stop-off with the real dwelling behind, but it’s still a reminder that the Bedu have lived in these apparently inhospitable sands for centuries.
Loping through the dunes were plenty of its descendants – we counted 100 camels, some roaming wild, others penned, one prized racing animal being led along. Soon only the tracks of 4 wheel drives and the occasional persevering plant broke the shimmering gold until we arrived at our desert home.
Arabian oryx, a gift to the owner, sheltered gracefully in the shade outside; these days none live wild in Oman. Inside, clouds of frankincense smoke aimed to keep the flies at bay, and beyond reception lay the tents – three kinds, from our traditional goat wool Sheikh tent with a small bathroom open to the air, to the more luxurious Ameer tents and more basic Arabic tents, plus ‘Sand house’ villas.
We just had time for a swim in the small pool, a real treat in the afternoon heat, before joining other guests to climb the dunes and watch the sun set.
You can drive up but Minnie insisted she wanted to climb; something she reconsidered part-way up the first steep sandy slope – but with the help of a strategically placed rope and some rather less than graceful scrambling, we made it up. And then up the next, and the next, until the light was starting to fade and the guests who set out earlier were only a silhouette on the horizon.
As darkness began to fall, shadows turning the expanse of sand into odd geometric patterns, the silence deepened. With our own little corner of the desert to watch from, I could feel the romance of a hundred half-remembered stories pull at me, the thought of adventuring out into this dramatic wild atop a camel, tracing a path from oasis to oasis, exploring the Empty Quarter itself.
Well, perhaps. Pulled back to reality by the gathering dark, we retraced our steps back down to the camp, watching two other adventurers settle onto their sand boards to speed the process even further. Rather slower, glossy black scarab beetles teetered along the scuffed up sand by the paths.
Greeted by a tapestry of stars, I had earned my (virgin) mojito at the small bar before dinner – a buffet with freshly grilled meat, curries and a few Western dishes, although we skipped any campfire entertainment afterwards for our beds. Another busy day awaited us the following morning.
But before we left, one last chance to live those desert explorer fantasies with a camel ride; billed as a camel safari, it’s more of a sedate wander around the camp, not least because my five-year-old took one look at our camel jerkily unfolding its legs and utterly rejected the idea of getting on this fearsome creature.
So in solitary splendour, I parade around the path on my haughtily superior transport, each ponderous step taking me further from the low-level buzz of the camp towards silence of the towering dunes. At least for a little while.
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